Belleville attorney Tom Keefe believes practicing law is one of the four true professions. His candid self-examination of his own last week reflected that professionalism.

In an extended interview with The Record's Ann Knef, the successful personal injury lawyer made the case that his vocation-- along with that of doctors, teachers, and clergy-- are society's most important.

Why then are lawyers so maligned? Keefe blamed a few bad apples, intent on sacrificing the reputation of a venerable career just to make themselves rich.

"They've put themselves first and have destroyed the profession," Keefe said.

"Whether it's the client, the patient, the student, or the penitent, they come before you. They come first. What has hurt our profession is that some lawyers have forgotten this," he said.

Among the most amnesiac, according to Keefe: Metro East profligate suers Stephen Tillery, Randy Bono, and Tom Lakin.

That he publicly called out any of the Metro East's fearsome threesome is newsworthy in itself. It's rare for lawyers to criticize fellow lawyers, much less ones flexing big bankrolls with a penchant for courtroom combat.

According to Keefe, the big lawyer payouts on Tillery's class actions are "utterly ridiculous." And the out-of-state asbestos suits lassoed by Bono "(don't) belong here."

And what about Lakin, the plaintiff's lawyer extraordinaire-turned depraved Wood River party animal who was indicted last year on drug and child sex charges?

"I went after him because he needed to be gone after," Keefe said. "I went after him because of how he treated children." Keefe represents an alleged victim in a civil suit against Lakin.

"This is a free country and I am entitled to my opinion," Keefe said. "When I perceive abuse I am going to speak up."

Our justice system is better off because Keefe spoke out. But that doesn't change the fact that his and other voices could have been heard much earlier and often.

Imagine if Keefe, respected by lawyers and judges alike, or others had spoken out about lawyer excesses years ago. What might have been the result if members of the legal profession had criticized Tillery's Philip Morris gambit, or Bono's asbestos machine as the cases were happening?

What might have been? We can only speculate.

But we can hope that in the future sworn officers of our courts don't lack the courage to stand up.

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